Making Connections Between Music and Visual Art

I had coffee recently with cello-player-extraordinaire Nat Chaitkin. Nat plays cello everywhere in Cincinnati, it seems- with the Cincinnati Symphony, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, and through his music advocacy program, Bach and Boombox, all over the city. Those facts do not begin to do him or his playing justice, though.

Nat wants to change the way people experience and perceive classical music, and everything he does is geared towards breaking down the walls between musicians and audience. He tells his students to find the story in the music they are playing, for all music tells some kind of story. Figuring out what the story is requires imagining something that becomes visual. Conjuring up something visual, even if the story is only seen in the mind’s eye, is something that visual artists can relate to.

Nat told me about an experience he had had at one of Cincinnati’s street festivals with a woman who has synesthesia. Her form of this condition is such that when she hears music, she sees colors that change as the notes change. Nat ended up playing music in different keys, while she drew what she was “seeing” on the pavement with colored chalk. It is just one example of how music and visual art connect.

Here is Nat’s full blog post about the encounter:

Your Experience May Vary

Most photographers don’t consciously think about how the sounds that exist in the environment in which they are photographing might affect what and how they photograph. This is too bad, because of course the sounds (and smells and tactile qualities) that surround us affect our experience of that environment, and thus affect the kind of art we make from it.

Nat’s experience is a reminder that visual artists should try to remain aware of all of our senses as we create our work, and not just rely on our eyes or our brains.

Thoughts on the Creative Voices of Women

I am currently reading a recently-published biography titled The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, by Elaine Showalter. Although Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is best known to Americans for having written the lyrics to the iconic song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, she saw herself for much of her life first and foremost as a poet. Indeed, she was a published poet, playwright, essayist, and women’s rights activist, but one whose creative voice was stifled at almost every turn until much later in her life. Because she lived at a time when women were not allowed control over their own financial affairs, when women who married were expected only to have children and keep the household, and when the consequences of stepping outside the lines that society had drawn for them were dire, Howe struggled mightily to write anything, much less get it published.

Reading this book has once again made me infinitely glad that I was born when I was, and not back in earlier times, when the lives of women were so different than they are now. The freedoms that women have gained since Howe’s time are so many and varied that I have often wondered how many other creative women we would be familiar with now, had their voices not been stifled back then.

The changes in attitudes towards women in the arts just in my own lifetime have been radical, and I have been the beneficiary of many of them. I came of age during the women’s rights movement of the 1970’s and the fights that we fought back then have given us momentum towards continuing to change the future. While the canon of the histories of the creative arts is still dominated by white males, and some fields are still male-dominated (architecture and movies, anyone?) the work of females and other marginalized groups is increasingly being taught more in schools, and is certainly being exhibited/published/performed/built. The internet has created public platforms for artists that were unimaginable only a few years ago. It’s my view that the participation of females in the arts is profound and that their work is valued more today than ever.

Is there more to be done in this regard? Yes. Absolutely.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of how far we have come from earlier times, when it was impossible for so many women like Julia Ward Howe to express themselves creatively, much less be recognized and lauded for their efforts.

Portraits, Self-Portraits, Cindy Sherman & Aging (Part 2)

My last post was inspired by a recent New York Times article about Cindy Sherman’s  latest body of work. In it, she presents herself in the style of old Hollywood screen goddesses who are past their prime. Rather than looking sadly like they are trying to still look like their younger selves, the women that Sherman portrays have a certain dignity to them. They look like they are older. They look like they have lived a life.

Photograph by Cindy Sherman

Photograph by Cindy Sherman

Sherman states that this work, which came after a 5-year hiatus, was the result of she herself getting older and trying to come to terms with it. She says, “I, as an older woman, am struggling with the idea of being an older woman.” And apparently she is using this new series to try to figure it out.

Sherman is now 62, an age which for many is an in-between state — not quite still middle-aged, but not yet old-old. As author Gerald Marzaroti recently wrote of people that age: “You are milling in the anteroom of the aged.” The fact that Sherman is professing that this series of pictures is more autobiographically based than her prior work is really interesting to me, as is the fact that her age is a driving force in making it.

Numerous photographers have used aging as a foundation for their work- Anne Noggle  and Lucy Hilmer are two who leap immediately to mind—and I, too, find myself very consciously exploring it in my own work at the moment.

I have always been interested in the process and effects of aging. For the “Shadowing the Gene Pool” series, I photographed young children and very old adults, marveling in their similarities and differences. I did the same in the “Birth & Death” series. In my current work, I am looking at my own body, how I am aging, what I think about it, and how I see myself as I age, in addition to looking at how others age. While it is not the only issue that my new work tackles, it is a big part of it.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column back in March that speaks to how being older can enrich one’s work. Here is an excerpt:

“…(People are) less likely by middle age to be blinded by ego, more likely to know what it is they actually desire, more likely to get out of their own way, and maybe a little less likely…to care about what other people think.

…They achieve a kind of tranquility, not because they’ve decided to do nothing, but because they’ve achieved focus and purity of will. They have enough self-confidence, and impatience, to say no to some things so they can say yes to others.

From this perspective, middle age is kind of inspiring. Many of life’s possibilities are now closed, but limitation is often liberating. The remaining possibilities can be seized more bravely, and lived more deeply.”